( Reuters) — Apple is optimistic that some of its popular apps removed from its China App Store this year to comply with government requests will be reinstated, the U.S. tech giants Chief Executive Tim Cook said on Wednesday. Cook, speaking at the Fortune Forum in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, also stressed that he believes strongly in freedoms, a comment seen by many as a response to a U.S. Democratic senators remarks on Tuesday that Apple had a moral obligation to promote free expression. Apple is facing criticism from local users and rights groups for bowing to pressure from Beijing cyber regulators after it decided to remove dozens of apps from its Chinese store this year, including messaging apps and virtual private network (VPN) services, which help users subvert Chinas Great Firewall. My hope over time is that some of the things, the couple of things thats been pulled, come back. I have great hope on that and great optimism on that, Cook said, adding that he always tries to find areas to work together and if he gets criticized for that, so be it. App stores run by Apple and Alphabets Google generate billions of dollars in revenue globally for them, and China is a key target market as its users rely heavily on their phones for daily tasks ranging from grocery shopping to booking nail appointments. Cook said he couldnt be happier with how the iPhone X is doing in China, Apples third-largest region by sales, although it has lost market share there in recent years as high-end handsets from local rivals continue to gain traction. Tencent Holdings, Chinas biggest social network and gaming company, was a great partner, Cook said, adding that he thinks very highly of its founder, Pony Ma. Apple and Tencent had a spat earlier this year after Tencent launched mini programs on its WeChat app, which created an ecosystem of apps within the app and threatened to become an operating system of its own. The two companies are seen to have made peace recently, with the Apple China App Store starting to accept WeChat payments from late August. Many of the top games on Apples China App Store are made by Tencent, which creates value for both firms. ( Reporting by Sijia Jiang and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)
This year has seen Apple widely criticized for aiding Chinas censorship push by removing VPN apps from its App Store in China. Company CEO Tim Cook painted a rather rosy picture of the situation with comments at the Fortune Forum in Chinese city Guangzhou. My hope over time is that some of the things, the couple of things thats been pulled, come back. I have great hope on that and great optimism on that, Reuters quoted Cook as saying. Theres quite a lot to unpack from such a short statement. Firstly, Apple didnt just remove a couple of things from the reach of China-based users. It would be more accurate to say a couple of hundred, but even that is under counting. Initial reports in July, when news of the removals surfaced, suggested that around 60 apps, mostly VPNs, were removed from the Chinese version of the App Store. However, last month, two U.S. senators put the number at 674 apps in 2017, more than double the total removed last year, and they include mainstream services like Skype. As for whether apps will be returned to the App Store, Cook is looking to positives when all signs in reality indicate otherwise. Under President Xi Jinping, China has advanced its internet censorship push to unprecedented levels. Beyond a clampdown on VPNs began prior to this year and reached crescendo with Apples action in July, Beijing has upgraded its Great Firewall censorship system, placed restrictions on live-streaming services, celebrity gossip media and interfered with messaging apps to name just a handful of key flashpoints. While not blocked entirely, WhatsApp users found that they were unable to send videos and photos through the chat app and issues seemed to extend to WeChat, Chinas most popular messaging service. The censorship seemed to be linked to the response to the death of dissident Liu Xiaobo, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who lost a battle to liver cancer earlier this month having been denied permission to leave custody to seek medical treatment overseas. Tim Cook asked about Apple pulling apps from its store: My view is you show up and you participate because nothing ever changes from the sidelines adds that each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations." While Cook is right that nothing ever changes from the sidelines, it is hard to imagine China relaxing its stance on web censorship given all that has happened. The reality is that Apple had little choice but to follow Beijings line in order to continue to do business in the lucrative Chinese market, but statements like Cooks today are dangerous because they massively underplay the severity of the situation.